Tuesday, September 16

Day 2: What is Meant by Unconditional Election?

What Is Meant By Unconditional Election?

Before we proceed to define what is meant by unconditional election, it is important to recall briefly the history of this truth in the church. We are generally accustomed to trace this truth of unconditional election back to the Calvin Reformation. And yet it was not Calvin who was the first to develop this truth. But, just as with the truth of total depravity, so also with this truth, St. Augustine, who lived more than a millennium ago in the Fifth Century A.D., was the first to speak of it. If we consider this a moment, this is not surprising. Augustine took the position that man is totally depraved. By this he meant that man is incapable of doing any good. And, most emphatically, that man is incapable of doing anything which would contribute to his salvation. In answer, therefore, to the question of how men are saved, Augustine answered that the power of salvation is to be found only in the power of sovereign, unmerited grace. There is no other power of salvation but that. But immediately the question arises: if the power of salvation is the power of sovereign, unmerited grace, not dependent in any respect upon man, how is it then that some men are saved and others are not? The answer to that question Augustine found in the decree of election and reprobation. He developed this truth therefore as part of his answer to the error of Pelagianism.

Sad to say, this truth was never officially accepted by the Roman Catholic Church in the form which Augustine gave to it. Even though Rome honors Augustine as a church father, his doctrines were soon lost. In the dreary ages between Augustine and John Calvin there could be found only very few who maintained this truth with the emphasis that Augustine placed upon it. One such man was Gottschalk, a German theologian, who, having read Augustine, became convinced of the truth of sovereign predestination. But he was imprisoned for teaching it and paid the ultimate price of a martyr's death, rotting in some foul dungeon in France, sentenced there by the Church.

It was not therefore until the time of the Protestant Reformation that the truth of sovereign predestination was brought to the fore. Luther believed it, maintained it, and taught it with emphasis. But Luther never made it an integral part of his theology. Luther's chief concern was the truth of justification by faith; and he never developed this truth of sovereign predestination in all its Scriptural emphases.

This work was done by John Calvin. And, indeed, if there was one reason why Calvin was hated it was because he maintained so unswervingly the truth of unconditional election.

This truth therefore became an important part of the confession of all the churches which follow the theology of the reformer of Geneva. The truth of unconditional election is incorporated into the Confessions of all the Reformed and Calvinistic Churches not only in Europe, but also in this country.

It was in the latter part of the century of the Reformation and the early part of the 17th Century that this truth was attacked by Arminius. He was professor of theology in the Reformed University of Leyden, had studied in Geneva at the Academy; but nevertheless openly repudiated the truth of predestination. But, as so often happens when heresy is introduced into the church of Christ, so in this case also, Arminius and those who supported him attempted to bring their teaching into the church under the banner of the Reformed faith. They tried to pass off their heresy as the teaching of Scripture, claiming that this ought to be the confession of the Reformed Churches. But our fathers would have none of this and pointed out in no uncertain language that the conditional election of the Arminians was not the truth of Scripture nor the heritage of the Calvinistic and Reformed Reformation.

It is not difficult to understand why the Arminians taught conditional election. They did not believe in total depravity to begin with. They wanted to preserve in man the freedom of his will -- the power of man's will to choose for the good, to accept the offer of the gospel. It was their contention that God on His part loved all men, that hatred and wrath were foreign to God's nature; that it was God's intention and desire to save all men; that, therefore, God made salvation available and obtainable to all men through the universal atonement -- a universal cross on which Christ died for the sins of every man. But it is clear that in such a system as that proposed by the Arminians, there is no room at all for unconditional election. While therefore, the Arminians wanted to retain Reformed and Scriptural language and speak of election, they cut the heart out of this important and beautiful truth by insisting that election is conditional. God elects those whom He knows will believe, the Arminians said. God elects those whom He knows will accept the gospel which is offered to them. God elects those whom He knows will, by an act of their will, accept the gospel and who will also persevere in that acceptance of the gospel and keep that faith which once they exercised. Election is based upon this work of man.

But it was precisely this description of the truth of election which our fathers strenuously opposed. They saw it, not as a minor point, not as an insignificant detail of the truth for which there was room in the Reformed Churches. They saw it as a threat to the truth, as a teaching which cut the heart out of the whole truth of God's Word. They saw that it destroyed the truth of God's work of salvation as taught in Scripture. And they insisted therefore, that election is unconditional.

What is meant by election?

There are several words used in Scripture to define this truth. The word "election" itself is used in Romans 9:11:

For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth; It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger.

The other two words - "to foreknow" and "to predestinate" are both used in Romans 8:29:

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

When the Scriptures speak of election it is evident that this refers to the counsel of God. In Eph. 1 the apostle Paul describes election in these words:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him . . . having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: . . In whom (Christ) also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will. (vss. 3, 4, 9.11.)

If, therefore, we are to understand the truth of election, we must discuss briefly the truth of the counsel of God. There is no room to discuss this important truth in detail, but some remarks must be made.

In the first place, it is important to notice that God's counsel cannot be compared with a plan - as so often it is. We speak of God's counsel as a plan; but it is possible that when we use this terminology we have in our minds something like the plan of an architect who makes a drawing of a proposed building. God's counsel is not that kind of plan. It is not written on a piece of paper and filed away somewhere in heaven. Nor is God's counsel even some kind of plan which is similar to a proposed course of action which we have in our minds. If we intend to go on a trip, e.g., we make our plans for that trip. But this is not the way we must consider the counsel of God.

Rather, God's counsel is His own living will. It is the living will of the God of heaven and earth. That is a fundamental truth from which all the rest of the truth of God's counsel necessarily follows. To deny this truth is really to deny the counsel of God altogether.

In the second place, God's counsel is eternal. The will of God is the will of the eternal God. If God is eternal and His will is eternal, His counsel is equally eternal. This means, in brief, that God is never without His counsel. The creation and the world have a beginning. God does not. He is above time, untouched by time's passing moments, dwelling in the serenity of eternity. What is true of God is true of His counsel.

In the third place, because God's counsel is His living will, God's counsel is also absolutely unchangeable. "I am Jehovah," the prophet Malachi informs Israel, "I change not. Therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed." (Mal. 3:6) The unchangeableness of God's own being is also the unchangeableness of His eternal counsel. There is nothing which can alter His counsel; nothing which can force God to revise it in any respect; nothing which can introduce into God's counsel alteration or amendment. It is eternal and unchangeable. We use the expression sometimes: "Prayer changes things." It is not clear what is meant by this vague and ambiguous expression. But if the meaning is that by means of our prayers the will and counsel of God is altered, that He does not do what He originally determined to do, then this expression must be condemned. There is nothing which can or does change the counsel of God.

In the fourth place, because that counsel of God is His living will, it is sovereignly efficacious. All that God has determined to do in His counsel will also be done. No power can frustrate it. All power belongs to God. No contingencies of life can prevent it from being realized. Everything that God has determined to do in His eternal and unchangeable counsel will certainly come to pass with absolute precision as He has determined it before the foundations of the world.

In the fifth place, the purpose of God's counsel -- the reason why He made His counsel, is the glory of his own name. God determined to glorify Himself. Not because He needed this glory to make His life as He lives it in Himself perfect. Not because His glory is incomplete. Not because, in any respect, the things which He determined to do in His counsel will make His glory richer and fuller than it is. But simply because He chose to reveal the glory of His own being in order that His glory might be acknowledged. All that God does, therefore, is determined by God's glory which He seeks.

But God, according to the Scriptures, desires to glorify Himself through Christ. This is the whole thrust of that beautiful passage in Ephesians 1 which speaks of election. God determines to make His glory known - but through Christ. That is, through Christ as He is born of a virgin and lived among us; through Christ as He suffers and dies on the cross; through Christ as He rises in power and glory from the dead; through Christ as He is exalted in the highest heavens; through Christ as He shall come again at the end of time to establish the everlasting kingdom of righteousness; through that Christ God reveals all the glory of His own divine being. Christ is the fullness of the revelation of the glory of God.

It is this which brings us to the heart of our subject because just as soon as we say "Christ," we also say "the elect." There is no Christ apart from the elect. He was born in Bethlehem, but He came into our flesh. He died on the cross in the place of His people to satisfy the justice of God which demanded punishment for sin. He arose again from the grave of His people to conquer death on their behalf. He is in heaven at God's right hand to pray for His people and to prepare all things that His people may come to Him in everlasting glory. And all this is true because the elect are chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world. God, inasmuch as He determines to glorify Himself in Christ, determines to glorify Himself in an elect people whom He chooses in Christ and who are destined to dwell with Christ forever in everlasting life.

This is the truth of God's counsel. All that we have said concerning God's counsel, therefore, must equally be said concerning predestination -- both election and reprobation.

Election is, therefore, that decree of God which He eternally makes, by which, with sovereign freedom, He chooses to Himself a people, upon whom He determines to set His love, whom He rescues from sin and death through Jesus Christ, unto Himself in everlasting glory.

This election is sovereign - God's sovereign and free choice. This election is eternal even as God's counsel is eternal. This election is unchangeable even as God's counsel is unchangeable. This election is efficacious so that the decree of election itself is, through Christ, the power by which the elect are actually saved.

Election is therefore definite and particular. Perhaps this needs emphasis. There are some who maintain that election is a general choice on the part of God so that He only decides to save some people. But just exactly who those people are whom God has decided to save is not decided by the decree of election. This is, once again, the old familiar Arminian ploy. It is only decided that God will save some; but precisely whom He will save is decided on the basis of what man himself will do with the offer of the gospel. This is not election - either of Scripture or the Reformed heritage. God knows His own from before the foundation of the world and chooses them, knowing their names and penning their names on the pages of the Book of Life. So that each one stands before God's mind and heart eternally as the object. of His love.

Now this election is unconditional. We believe in unconditional election. And it is this truth of unconditional election which must be maintained because it stands overagainst the Arminian heresy which teaches that election is conditional.

Once again, it ought to be clear that this truth of unconditional election is not merely a subtle distinction, a minor and insignificant detail. When our fathers insisted upon this truth, they were not interested in splitting hairs - as they have so often been accused of doing. The Arminians were destroying the whole work of God in salvation when they proposed their heresy. You may be sure that the same is true today. It is cruelly unjust to accuse those who maintain the truth of unconditional election of being guilty of fastening on insignificant details of the truth. The fact is that unless we maintain unconditional election, there is no election at all. By making election conditional the heart is cut from the truth of salvation, because then the power of sovereign grace is denied as the power by which God saves those whom He has chosen to be His own. Then limited atonement is denied even though this truth is taught on every page of Scripture. Then total depravity is denied and many good things are found in man, chief of which is his ability to assist in the work of salvation. It is conditional election which paves the way for all these other heresies. It all fits in. For then God's choice is not sovereign, but is dependent upon what man will do with the salvation which God lovingly offers to him, but which will not be his unless he receives it by his own power to accept or reject it.

It might not be amiss to notice somewhat in passing, that the position of the Arminians is extremely involved and complicated. It is difficult, to say the least, to understand the Arminian position. Many questions arise which the Arminians themselves have chosen not to answer, but which they shrug off with the convenient excuse that these are "apparent contradictions". For example, if God desires to save all men, and yet all men are not saved, is not the purpose of God frustrated by man? Is not the almighty sovereign of heaven and earth overcome by the puny strength of man? The inevitable answer to this embarrassing question is: This is an apparent contradiction which we cannot explain. But surely, overagainst this complicated and involved position of the Arminians, the truth of Scripture is clear and easy to understand. Whether men agree with it or not is, after all, not the question. But men can understand it. It is simple enough for a child to understand. It avoids all the pitfalls and embarrassing questions of the position of Arminianism.

But however this may be, it is the truth of unconditional election which we must maintain. What does this mean?

First of all (and negatively) this means that in the decrees of election God chose not according to anything found in man. He did not base His choice on man in any way. Not on man's goodness, works, faith, holiness; not on man's faithfulness to the gospel. There could not be found in man any good thing. It was a free choice, a sovereign choice of God. He made it without any consideration of man whatsoever. The apostle Paul expresses this in Romans 9:10-13. Paul is speaking of Jacob and Esau -- children of Isaac and Rebecca. He writes:

And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.

This same truth was expressed in the Old Dispensation when Israel was brought to the borders of Canaan. God told Israel through Moses:

The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all people: But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut. 7:7.8.)

The choice of God was not because Israel had any distinctive traits about her which set her apart from the other nations. The only reason why God chose Israel was because God loved her. His choice was free and sovereign.

Secondly, and positively, that election is based solely upon God's good pleasure. In Ephesians 1:4ff. the truth of this is set forth.

According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will.

This is the only basis for election. God chose those whom He chose because it seemed good to Him to do it. It was His good pleasure. It was the good pleasure of His own eternal and unchangeable will. It was His because He had determined to glorify Himself in His own way through a people whom He would choose.

Thirdly, this means that all the blessings of salvation flow forth from the decree of election. We are not chosen because we believe, but rather because God is pleased to choose us. And faith and perseverance in faith are blessings which come to us through election. Election is the fountain of every good work. Our Canons (quite expectedly) emphasize this very strongly.

That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it proceeds from God's eternal decree. . . . (1, 6.)

This election was not founded upon foreseen faith, and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the pre- requisite, cause or condition on which it depended, but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc., therefore election is the fountain of every saving good. from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects . . . . (I, 9.)

In this connection, a word must also be said concerning the truth of reprobation, although space forbids us to enter into this in detail.

In the first place, it must be emphasized that the truth of election and reprobation stand or fall together. To deny election is to deny reprobation. To deny reprobation is to deny election. To believe election is to believe reprobation. To believe reprobation is to believe election. There is no compromise at this point. Calvin has a very beautiful quote concerning this in his Institutes. He writes in Bk. III, Chap. XXIII, Para. 1:

Many, indeed, as if they wished to avert odium from God, admit election in such a way as to deny that any one is reprobated. But this is puerile and absurd, because election itself could not exist without being opposed to reprobation. God is said to separate those whom he adopts to salvation. Whom God passes by, therefore, he reprobates, and from no other cause than his determination to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his children. And the petulance of men is intolerable, if it refuses to be restrained by the word of God, which treats of his incomprehensible counsel, adored by angels themselves.

This is Calvinism and the Reformed faith.

In the second place, God's decree of reprobation is also a decree of His sovereign, eternal and unchangeable counsel. According to that decree God determined to reveal His justice, wrath, and hatred of sin, and in this way the holiness of His own divine being, in vessels of wrath fitted for destruction and punished everlastingly in hell because of their sins.

This is the truth of reprobation.

Tomorrow: What Is Its Importance of Unconditional Election For The Church?


No comments:

Back to the top